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Compassion amid chaos: Students share Christ during Mardi Gras

By John W. Kennedy

Wayne Northup weaves his way through the partying crowd on Bourbon Street near St. Louis Avenue in New Orleans. On this Monday night, known as Lundi Gras, the high-energy Assemblies of God evangelist is on a mission to tell others about Jesus.

Northup warns me that we will encounter blatant immorality at every turn. His six years of ministry experience at Mardi Gras have taught him to expect anything, and to be spiritually prepared at all times.

Walking among people who are totally consumed with sinful pleasure makes me wonder how Lot and his family must have felt when living in Sodom. Yet, the young people ministering with Northup are taking the gospel into a 21st-century equivalent of that ancient city.

Four inches of rain during the day has kept many would-be revelers away the night before the Mardi Gras finale. The conclusion of the city’s festival traditionally attracts more than a million local residents and tourists. The weather tonight makes the assignment easier for Northup’s 290-member Answering the Cries (ATC) team. They have more room to maneuver along the streets, as long as they dodge puddles. Pacing like a caged animal, Northup is ready to meet the multitudes as part of a five-day outreach.

Mardi Gras, French for “Fat Tuesday,” is traditionally the final day for pagans to gorge their flesh before the arrival of Ash Wednesday.

Bags of garbage laden with beer cans and discarded drinking cups are piled outside the bars and strip joints in the six blocks of the French Quarter.

“People come here to run from pain, and to do things they never would do at home,” says Northup, wearing canvas shorts and tennis shoes, along with his ATC sweatshirt.

ATC volunteers don’t just encounter drunken students. People who would appear to be mature pillars of society are also here giving themselves over to decadence they probably would be ashamed of in their hometowns.

Although sin abounds at Mardi Gras, ATC students are trained to deal with the debauchery. Before embarking on the streets, the young people undergo intense preparation on how to steer clear of sinful situations. They also receive instruction on how to evangelize cult members, post-moderns, homosexuals and backslidden Christians.

CULTURE CLASH
In the past 10 days, New Orleans police have arrested more than 1,500 people for lewd behavior, public intoxication or disturbing the peace. On Bourbon Street tonight, every merrymaker seems to have an alcoholic beverage in hand. City crews earlier greased lampposts to keep the inebriated from climbing them. Cigarette and cigar fumes dangle in the outdoor air.

As the six-week pre-Lenten carnival season nears its culmination, a clash of cultures can be seen in the French Quarter. Other groups of Christians have descended on the city to chastise sinners. A lone man standing in an intersection holds a Bible aloft, only a few steps away from a reveler dressed in a risqué Satan costume. A couple of blocks away a man reads the Word of God through a megaphone. Passersby mock him with twisted facial expressions and obscene gestures. A howling woman from a nearby balcony hurls a cup of beer his way. A half dozen people parade in the street holding placards with messages such as “God Hates Sin” and “Fear God.” Few of the people holding beer cups pay attention. A bearded man dressed as Jesus totes a cross that has a huge poster attached, urging an eclectic group such as “Demoncrats, drunks, rock & rollers, Mormons and rich people” to repent.

A MESSAGE OF LOVE
Northup, who is based at Emmanuel Christian Center, an Assemblies of God church in Minneapolis, figures there are enough people waving banners about judgment. He doesn’t believe preaching condemnation via bullhorns or posters is the most effective method to reach post-modern society.

Northup, 28, knows what it’s like to live apart from God. He abused illegal drugs during most of his teenage years before being “radically saved” at 17.

Answering the Cries has become the largest organized ministry at Mardi Gras. About half are Master’s Commission participants while about one-third of the young volunteers are from Northup’s alma mater, North Central University. This year, ATC branched off to conduct a separate simultaneous Mardi Gras outreach in St. Louis involving an additional 145 young people.

Ministry teams go out two by two, each partner with someone of the opposite sex. Northup says the plan provides accountability and security that might not be there otherwise.

By working together in mixed-gender teams, the young men and women keep each other spiritually accountable. Those who can’t remain vigilant return to the ministry base and participate in intercessory prayer.

ATC is primarily a ministry to plant gospel seeds and to offer hope by using creative ways to appeal to young people.

On Lundi Gras, an ATC team sets up outside an Iberville Avenue restaurant, which has agreed to contribute a cash prize to a best freestyle rapper contest in anticipation of potential customers stopping to eat. As soon as the amplified ATC rappers start rapping, scores of people congregate on the street in front of the eatery.

Beforehand contestants are gently told swearing isn’t allowed. ATC rappers flow with lyrical rhymes about Jesus.

As with the rapping, all ATC outreaches are designed to slow down revelers and make them think. There is face painting, basketball shooting contests, bucket and barrel drumming demonstrations, and clothing giveaways to the homeless. After spectators gather for an artistic presentation, other ATC team members walk among them to start conversations.

The squads don’t spend time conversing with those who are too inebriated. ATC teams leave the French Quarter by 11 p.m., before the boisterous crowd becomes a stumbling throng.

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